Pornography and Censorship
Should the government be allowed to legitimately prohibit citizens from publishing or viewing pornography, or would this be an unjustified violation of basic freedoms? Traditionally, liberals defended the freedom of consenting adults to publish and consume pornography in private from moral and religious conservatives who wanted pornography banned for its obscenity, its corrupting impact on consumers and its corrosive effect on traditional family and religious values. But, in more recent times, the pornography debate has taken on a somewhat new and surprising shape. Some feminists have found themselves allied with their traditional conservative foes in calling on the state to regulate or prohibit pornography-although the primary focus of feminist concern is on the harm that pornography may cause to women (and children), rather than the obscenity or immorality of its sexually explicit content. And some liberals have joined pro-censorship feminists in suggesting that the harms that violent and degrading pornography causes to women's social standing and opportunities might be sufficiently serious to justify prohibiting pornography, even by liberals' own lights. Many others, both liberals and feminists, remain unconvinced. They are doubtful that pornography is a significant cause of the oppression of women or that the "blunt and treacherous weapon" of the law is the best solution to such harm as pornography may cause. As we shall see, the debate over whether pornography should be censored remains very much alive. •
1. What is pornography?
2. The shape of the traditional pornography debate
2.1 Conservative arguments for censorship
2.2. The traditional liberal defence of a right to pornography
2.2.1 The harm principle
2.2.2 Pornography and offence
2.2.3 The dangers of censorship
3. Recent liberal dissent
4. Feminist approaches
4.1 Feminist arguments against pornography
4.2 Feminist arguments against legal regulation
5. Recent debate: liberals and feminists
5.1 Does pornography cause harm to others?: The empirical evidence o
5.2 Liberals and feminists
1. What is Pornography?
"I can't define pornography," one judge once famously said, "but I know it when I see it." (Justice Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 US 184 (1964).) Can we do better? The word "pornography" comes from the Greek for writing about prostitutes. However, the etymology of the term is not much of a guide to its current use, since many of the things commonly called "pornography" nowadays are neither literally written nor literally about prostitutes. Here is a first, simple definition. Pornography is any material (either pictures or words) that is sexually explicit. This definition of pornography may pick out different types of material in different contexts, since what is viewed as sexually explicit can vary from culture to culture and over time. "Sexually explicit" functions as a kind of indexical term, picking out different features depending on what has certain effects or breaks certain taboos in different contexts and cultures. Displays of women's uncovered ankles count as sexually explicit in some cultures, but not in most western cultures nowadays (although they once did: the display of a female ankle in Victorian times was regarded as most risqué). There may be borderline cases too: do displays of bared breasts still count as sexually explicit in various contemporary western cultures? However, some material seems clearly to count as sexually explicit in many contexts today: in particular, audio, written or visual representations of sexual acts (e.g., sexual intercourse, oral sex) and exposed body parts (e.g., the vagina, anus and penis-especially the erect penis). Within the general class of sexually explicit material, there is great variety in content. For example, some sexually explicit material depicts women, and sometimes men, in...
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